JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 1: History of Christmas Lights


Christmas Light History

Call them what you want – “holiday” lights, Kwanzaa lights, FSM celebration lights, or just plain Christmas lights – it’s time to load-in your illuminated display and play “whose is bigger” with your neighbors. Every year about this time (and in many, many tacky cases, earlier) we put up lighting around, inside, and attached to our houses to celebrate whatever it is that we celebrate. I’m from central Illinois, so I always associate christmas lights with being freezing cold!

This upcoming weekend seems to be the most popular time of the year to haul out and re-install your grand christmas lighting display. There are many conflicting ideas as to when is appropriate to put up your christmas lights: some people say no earlier than December 1, and some people say that Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) is acceptable. Frankly, I could care less – put them up whenever you would like. Just be forewarned that if you leave them up too long after the Christmas holiday, people are probably gonna make fun of you behind your back!

When you go to buy your christmas lights and associated gack that is needed for your display (extension cables, cube taps and power strips, etc), you’re going to be inundated with sizes, shapes, colors (of both lamps and wire), and stuff to attach the lighting to the side of your house. It’s a production. Make sure that you’re ready before you start into the task, you know? It’s like the phrase, “never plumb when the stores are closed.”

The History of Christmas Lighting

Have you ever really thought about this before? They had to start somewhere, right?

“Christmas” lighting actually goes back way into the history of ancient civilizations. There wasn’t a sense of Christmas really until the Christians came along with the whole Jesus birth and all. The idea of worshipping the Sun as a god came about, well, when the sun went away each day. Christianity, Hindu, Islam, the ancient Greeks and Romans, etcetera – it’s all based on worshipping the Sun to help the crops grow, heat the earth, provide light, and generally allow everything to stay alive – something that (rumor has it) the ancient civilizations kinda liked.


Each year when the winter came, people in ancient times would build fires at night to “lure back” the Sun, which would go “away” earlier and earlier every day that the winter stumbled on. Obviously when you’re cold and ancient, you would probably think “man, I am one cold dude right now. I hope that the Sun comes back tomorrow!” I know I would.

As with Evolutionists and Creationists, there is an alternate version of why Christmas came about, and is based on the winter solstice. Civilizations in ancient history located in the northern hemisphere of earth probably noticed that all year long, the Sun moves south a little more each day during the summer, through autumn, and into the end of the year months. On December 22 of the calendar year, the Sun stops moving south – it actually rises lower and lower in the sky each time it makes its daily appearance. The December 22 date is significant because that day the day that the Sun stops moving south in the sky, and does not move north for December 22, 23, or 24. To ancient civilizations, this symbolized death of the Sun. On December 25, the Sun moves about one degree north, signalling the “rebirth” of the Sun, something to be celebrated, as warmer temperatures, food growing, and not dying of the cold is a good thing.

So, depending on your beliefs, either the Christmas holiday celebrates the alignment of the Sun and foreshadows the spring, or it is a celebration of crucifixion, death, and resurrection of someone named Jesus Christ. Either way, whatever tickles your fancy!


Now, electric christmas lights, on the other hand…


Back when people could only use candles on their trees (you know, because christmas lights hadn’t even been invented), the tree would only get put up in the house for a few days, if that long. It’s that funny way that fire interacts with dry timber that made it hard to really do much but watch the tree to make sure that it wasn’t going to burn down your whole neighborhood.

1901 GE Ad 2

The birth of christmas lights actually goes back very far into history, around the Early Modern Period (1500’s, approximately). Electric christmas lights, on the other hand, were invented by an associate of Tommy Edison back in 1882 – the inventor, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who at the time was the VP of Edison Electric Light Company, had it in his head to hand wire 80 red, white, and blue incandescent lamps about the size of a pinball to a pine tree. Johnson displayed this new invention in his parlor on Fifth Avenue in NYC on the 22nd of December 1882, which made that night the opening night for electric christmas tree lighting and made Johnson the father of the electric christmas tree lights.

A reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune wrote a review of Johnson’s christmas light display, a historical record of the rockingness of the first christmas lights! Croffut’s review in 1882:

Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue—all evening.

I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight—one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity. It was a superb exhibition.

Nice. Thanks for inventing christmas lights, Edward! I present you with Edward Johnson’s electric lamp christmas tree:


Christmas lights used to come in “crate sets,” which was basically a wooden box with all of the stuff you’d need to set up your lights – the bases, wire, and the lamps. The lamps look lacquer-dipped or some other kind of chemical paint for the glass. Check it out, a version from 1906, made by Empire:


Christmas light lamps got craaaazy in the 1915-1920 era. People made lamps that looked like birds, like policemen, Indians, flowers, pumpkins, and a whole lot more completely random stuff like that. For example, here’s a cut sheet of some package assortments some company was selling:


Yep. Pumpkins, Santa, and a witch – what an original combination!

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, figurine and different styles of lamp shapes (round, cones, cones with ribs, etc) were experimented into the market. In the late 1920’s to the Great Depression era, a weird direction took place in the shape of christmas light lamps, at least in my opinion. With the market crashed and people poor everywhere, companies started producing the “matchless star,” which was a crazy looking electric star lamp. Check these out, they’re wild:



After World War II, in the economic boom that followed, interesting stuff like bubble lamps hit the market, as well as the aluminum christmas tree and those color wheel spotlights that would illuminate the tree from underneath. The bubble lamps look pretty neat – apparently a type of antifreeze type material (methyl something or other) was used in the “bubble chamber” so as to be able to withstand the heat. Here’s a picture of an early bubble lamp, circa-1947:


Over the next fifty years all kinds of stuff has happened – manufacturers have come and gone, products have entered and left the market, and progress has changed all kinds of things from the metal in conductors to the efficiency of tungsten filaments. GE, Sylvania, and many others have come out with products like the Lighted Ice lamp (lamp covered with chunks of colored glass), the Tinsel Light (yep, a lamp embedded in tinsel), and the ever-so-popular reflector lamps, which were mini incandescents with little hazy plastic reflectors on each lamp. If you have been alive in the 1900’s at all, your parents probably had thousands of these things over the years. I remember having them as far back as the mid-1990s.

My favorite historical christmas light set is by far the fluorescent christmas lights from Sylvania. How cool! They were essentially cold cathode sources, but they’re white when they’re not energized. Check out these crazy colors:


I totally want some fluorescent christmas lights. I think I might have to make some!

A side note for this post:
I did a lot of research on this five part series, especially the history section. I cannot believe how many resources there are on the internet for christmas light history. Awesome. From the invention of the concept to the way that the business of christmas lighting has progressed over the years, it’s all out there.

You have to see the following websites if you’re interested in the history of christmas lights:

Thanks for the great information!

Check out Part Two:  Christmas light lamp sizes and types!  Exciting!

Christmas Lights – With A Mind of Their Own

I just found a video of a really kitchy and pretty funny xmas lighting display – I just wonder what the control systems for these crazy installs are!  Do you think this is DIY, arduino controlled?  Would it not be just wicked to hook a Hog III up to your house?!

The music is pretty cool, give it the two minutes to watch.

Thanks, Responsive Arts!



Yes, that’s a picture of a light-up turkey.

No matter where you are – if you’re out on the road with a show, stuck in a desert somewhere, or lucky enough to be with those you love this Turkey Day, I wish you the best darned Turkey Day that is humanly possible.

Vegetarians, I’ll eat some turkey for you.  I’m sure that your blood pressure will be lower than mine if that’s any consolation.


LDI 2009 – Coemar’s Booth

More pictures from LDI 2009 – another booth I am always impressed with, the Coemar booth.  Las Vegas’ LDI 2008 Coemar booth was pretty sick, this one was just as awesome.  Check it out!








Were You at LDI 2009?


I met so many awesome people at LDI 2009 this year – it was certainly a year to remember, and my first Orlando show.  I normally go to Vegas for LDI, but I am glad I was able to partake in the candy-coated goodness that came from this year’s conference.

Enough about me though – what did YOU think of this year’s show?  What was your favorite thing, your least favorite thing, your biggest surprise, or your biggest letdown?  Did you see something so totally awesome that it rocked your world?  Did you have a bad beef burrito from the concession area?  I really want to know – if you were in Orlando basking in the artificial light goodness of LDI 2009, please tell me your experiences in the comments below!

If you’re kind enough to comment, I’m going to throw your name into a drawing for some JimOnLight stickers and this LED flashlight just for taking the time to comment!


LDI 2009 – Chauvet Lighting’s Booth


I loved posting last year’s LDI pics of the booths I photographed.  It was like giving the people who couldn’t go a chance to see what it was all about!

Every LDI, I am always amazed by the sheer magnitude of Chauvet Lighting‘s booth.  It’s always massive, it’s always a sunburst of color, and you can usually see it from just about anywhere in the convention center.  I also got to meet Navah, the girl behind @chauvetlighting on Twitter.  Great to meet you finally!

Check out this booth!








LDI 2009 is Over, and I Had A Blast!


I’m home from LDI 2009 in Orlando, Florida – my lovely wife Leia and my sister-in-law were with me on Saturday afternoon on the conference floor and at the LDI 2009 Tweet-Up that night.  Friday and Saturday I walked around mostly with Justin of iSquint.net and generally had a blast.

This was the year that I met more people in the span of two days than ever before in my life!  All of you wonderful people that I finally got to meet at LDI this year – you’re all awesome!

I have some excellent information from the conference that I’ll be sharing across the next several days.  Lots of stuff debuted at this year’s LDI conference, and lots of images were captured by my camera!  I think I took over a thousand pictures and video clips, so get ready to learn what went up and down at the show!

I have so many things to show you all…  now that you’re all hopefully back from Orlando and rocking the office again, right?  There were so many things that were awesome about the show this year – two of which are on this page.  One is my wife getting to walk the show floor and see what it’s all about, and another is our beloved @lekogirl’s awesome color filter swatch dress at the JimOnLight.com and iSquint.net LDI 2009 Tweet-Up on Saturday night!  Daphne, you are awesome!

Stay tuned!


At LDI 2009

Jim’s at LDI 2009 in Orlando today and tomorrow, taking in the show floor. If you’re there, make sure to say hello!

If you want to be sure to connect with Jim, he can be reached at (877) ALIVE-ME, by e-mail (use the Contact form), or on Twitter at @jimonlight. He’s keeping an eye on all forms of contact.

Don’t forget Saturday night’s tweetup in the Peabody Hotel starting around 8pm.

JimOnLight’s Top Five Posts for November


I love reading the analyses of what you all like to read – every time I want to write one of these top five posts, I am always, always surprised!

November 2009’s Top Five Posts, starting with the number 1 post for November:

  1. Robert Mokry and the BFL-192 LED Luminaire
  2. VLX:  Inside the New LED Marvel of Moving Lights
  3. Oh No They Didn’t:  Christmas Lighting Controller
  4. JimOnLight.com, page 2!
  5. Art with Shadows:  Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Trashy Shadows

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Holy Creeping Crap, It’s Christmas Lights Time!


Yes, it’s the time of year when all electrical safety rules go flying out the window like a vegetarian running from Texas de Brazil.  The same time of year, in fact, that people all over the world will be stringing up runs of lighting in LED, incandescent, and in some applications, even fluorescent christmas lights.

Remember that scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Chevy Chase plugged in the redonkulously large holiday display on his house that he had installed, and it caused the nuclear power plant to have to flip some switch for more power?  Yeah.  I think of Christmas lighting like that.  But I wish I could give the world a class on Christmas lighting – sometimes it’s just not necessary to put the whole nativity scene lit with disco balls AND the full-sized Santa and the full reindeer team up this year.  Seriously!

In the up and coming few days, I’m gonna publish a few guides on Christmas lighting – controllers, different types, color information, and a few other informative-y things.  This is the time of year when people are planning their massive holiday lighting displays, so I want to help if I can help at all!  There are many things to consider – what kind of lights to buy, how to make them turn on, and most importantly, how to make your lights kick everyone else’s lights’ rears in your neighborhood without setting the whole neighborhood aflame.

And now, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas Lighting video that everyone has seen seven triple gazillion times: